Policy of «ukrainization» in USSR

12:49 10.11.2022 • Egor Tkachev , postgraduate, Plekhanov Russian University of Economics

The Russian issue has always been high on the agenda of the young Ukrainian state, causing a large number of disputes and conflicts. According to a 2002 nationwide survey, 60% of the population of Ukraine, aged between 16 and 34, believed that Russians and Ukrainians belong to one and the same nation. The Russian language was widely used in everyday life, most people living in the east of the country considered Russian their mother tongue1. Before the 2014 Maidan, about 50% of Ukrainians felt part of Russian culture and spoke Russian. After 2014, the Russian culture was subjected to persecution and the new Ukrainian authorities chose to pursue the policy of Ukrainization. A glaring instance of such a policy is the fact that while in the 2017-2018 academic year Ukraine had 622 Russian-language schools, two years later, in 2019-2020, only 197 remained. Ukrainian language was expected to become the only language of communication, and all educational programs were to be modified to meet the new standards, which had nothing of the Soviet or Russian past.

The Russian-language academia often use the word “Ukrainization” as “characteristic of Ukrainian state” in contemporary history. However, the first experience of inculcating the Ukrainian language and culture from the top was the policy of the so-called “korenization”(“nativization”) which was carried out in the newly formed Soviet republics that had sprung up on the territory of the former Russian Empire. Back then, in the 1920s, the concept “Ukrainization” acquired widespread popularity2.

Ukrainian identity sustained a variety of changes. In Russia, people who lived in the border regions were known as Ukrainians; in the Moscow State, military people who did their military service in Ukraine were addressed as Ukrainians, along with Cherkasy people. Gradually, “Ukrainianism” became an ethnonym that spread to the population of Ukraine, which belonged to the  Russian Empire. In the A.S.Pushkin drama “Boris Godunov” the character Otrepiev talks about himself: “And finally, I ran from the monastic cells to Ukrainians, their riotous Cossack huts, and so I learned to ride on horseback and wield a sword…..” Still, the term “Ukrainian” was used fairly rarely, less than Little Russian, Rusyn, Russinian, even the national hero T.G.Shevchenko did not call himself a Ukrainian.

Thus, in the 19th century Ukrainian identity, though it existed, was not a mass phenomenon and had no political expression. This calls for an insight into the demographic situation in the region. Under the 1897 census, living on the territory of present-day Ukraine were 73% of Little Russians (Ukrainians), 12% of Russians, 8% of Jews, 7% of Germans, Poles and Belarusians3. 93% of all Ukrainians were peasants, among urban dwellers only 30% were Ukrainian. A researcher of the 20th-century Ukrainian society, B.Kravchenko, points out that the word “Ukrainian” was synonymous to the word “peasant”4.

In 1897 there were only 16% Ukrainian lawyers, less than one fourth of teachers, 10% of writers and actors5. The Russian language was predominant in education, in the army, in science and in the arts.

After the establishment of the Soviet power on the territory of the Russian Empire the Communist leaders needed to legitimize themselves, to win the loyalty of wide sections of society. Considering that the Soviet rule was far from stable and the seizure of power in the capital did not guarantee it a cloudless future, the Bolsheviks made an attempt to acquire the support of ethnic minorities, which resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Russian Peoples, issued in 1917 and signed by I.V.Stalin and V.I.Lenin.6. The Declaration argued that in tsarist times the peoples of Russia “were alienated against one another”, “sustained oppression and arbitrariness” and that in order to eradicate “the policy of lies and distrust” and to avoid a repetition of it in the future it was essential to abide by the following provisions:

  1. Equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia.
  2. The right of the peoples of Russia to self-determination, up to the separation and formation of independent states.
  3. Abolition of all ethnic and religious privileges and restrictions.
  4. Free development of ethnic minorities and ethnic groups that lived on the territory of Russia.

The party’s new policy, which acquired its final shape in April 1923, at the 12th Congress of the Russian Communist Party of Bolsheviks, became known as “korenization” (“nativization”).  Although the term “nativization” was not used at the Congress, it received a wide-ranging use in subsequent years. At the regional level, it transformed into “Ukrainization”, “Belorussization”, “Uzbekization”, “Ojrotization”.

Ukrainization of the region was the dream of local politicians, prominent figures of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, which existed in 1917-1921, - Grushevsky, Vinnichenko, Doroshenko, and others. Ukrainian intellectuals were aware of the peasant nature of the population acknowledging that in order to build an independent state it was disseminate Ukrainian, not Little Russian, identity. Russian writer V.G.Korolenko, though sympathizing with Ukrainian movement, would frequently use the term “Ukrainian” to describe a politically minded citizen, a supporter of Ukrainian statehood.

That’s why Ukrainian historians demonstrate a negative attitude towards Ukrainization, describing it as a totalitarian Soviet instrument which subdued the impetus in the construction of the young nation, which took the initiative from Ukrainian political leaders7.

Researchers cite different reasons for Ukrainization from the position of the central government of the USSR. English researcher T.Martin says the Bolsheviks were pursuing a course towards world revolution. In his opinion, they chose to act in counterbalance to the slogan “On the Right of a Nation to Self-Determination”, which was proclaimed by US President W.Wilson, and aimed to win the support nationalities for making world revolution rather than creating a multi-national federation of peoples8.

Other researchers, among them A.K.Degtiarev, point out that the Bolsheviks’ top priority was to address the political issues at home. Originally, the revolution relied on the working class, the peasants could have had a negative impact on it on account of their numbers. For this reason, Communist leaders were keen to win over peasantry and the nationalists9.

Notably, the high class – officers, intellectuals, cultural figures, teachers – in Little Russian provinces was represented by Russians who, in the words of Lenin, embodied great-power chauvinism and oppressors of other peoples of the empire. “Internationalism on the part of the oppressing or so-called “great” nation (although it is great only in violence, great only as a gendarme is) must consist not only in observing formal equality of nations but also in such inequality as would be compensation by the oppressing nation, the big nation, for that inequality which actually takes shape in life”10.

From the very outset, Ukrainization of public life acquired a dynamic pace. Although the languages of all nationalities were deemed equal, and Russian and Ukrainian were the most spoken ones, it was Ukrainian that was proclaimed prevalent as the language of “official relations”. In fact, Ukrainization facilitated the process of attracting Ukrainian nationals to work in party organs, conduct teaching in Ukrainian, create a network of national research institutes, and promote the development of Ukrainian literature and arts11.

The next stage of Ukrainization was characterized by a high-geared pace and a tough administrative and command style. On April 30, 1925 the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars of Ukrainian SSR released a resolution “On Urgent Measures to Conduct Complete Ukrainization of Soviet Apparatus”, which required all government bodies to switch to Ukrainian documentation by January 1926, that is, in nine months.  The resolution was followed by a whole range of other documents in the same format: “On the Signs and Names on Buildings occupied by Soviet Institutions”, “On the Order of Installing Signs, Inscriptions, Forms, Seals and Labels in Ukrainian on the territory of Ukrainian SSR”.12.

In 1926 the Council of People’s Commissars of Ukrainian SSR published a collection of decrees and directives titled “Ukrainization of Soviet Resolutions”. In the “Provisions on Ensuring the Equal Status of Languages and Assistance in the Development of Ukrainian Culture” all public servants were told to completely switch to Ukrainian or leave their posts.

The aggressiveness of such a policy becomes visible in publications. From the newspaper “Kharkov Proletarian”: “24 employees were fired for showing no knowledge of Ukrainian. The district commission on Ukrainization ruled to dismiss for no knowledge of Ukrainian 2 workers of the Parkhomov sugar plant, 5 employees of a club in Yuzhny, 2 – from an electric power plant….”13. There were plenty of reports to this effect.

The Soviet government, which resolved to create a new Ukrainian elite, resorted to various means. Thus, in order to boost the authority of the Ukrainization policy leaders of Ukrainian SSR allowed M.S.Grushevsky to return home, in 1926 geographer S.V.Rudnitsky came back, and 1927 saw the return of yet another prominent expert in international and national law M.M.Lozinsky14.

A number of artistic unions were set up in the Ukrainian SSR: the Association of Contemporary Artists of Ukraine, the Association of Artists of Red Ukraine, writer clubs “Plough” and “Gart”. In the 1920s – early 1930s, these unions, along with the dissemination of Communist ideology, were involved in the popularization of Ukrainian identity and culture. Ukrainian SSR film studios made films: “Ostap Bandura”, “Taras Shevchenko”, “Borislav Laughs”15. Thus, Ukraine got its own artistic elite, which, even though reporting and loyal to the central government, became a carrier of independent culture.

In 1930 only four of large newspapers came out in Russian in Odessa, Lugansk and Stalino (now Donetsk). Unlike the beginning, when the press had few, if any, editions in Ukrainian, by 1933 373 of 426 periodic editions in Ukrainian SSR came out in Ukrainian. The total number of copies exceeded 3.6 million, which made up 89% of the total number of printed media16.

School statistics demonstrated a similar trend: by 1930 there were only 1504 Russian-language schools against 14 430 Ukrainian17. A particular emphasis in the school curriculum was put on the study of Ukrainian culture, literature and history.

In culture, Ukrainization often progressed thanks to strict orders from above. In one instance, a document which was sent by the Lugansk district executive committee to the manager of a city theatre read as follows: “By this document the district inspection of the People’s Commissariat of Education notifies You that as of January 20, 1926, all posters for theatrical, circus and cinema performances must be issued in Ukrainian. In case this is ignored, the administration will be held responsible and all productions will be cancelled”18.

“Korenization” spread not only to regions of present-day Ukraine but also to Kuban and North Caucasus. The years 1924-1925 saw the opening of 150 Ukrainian-language schools. As Ukrainian critic A.S.Yefremov  recalls, Russian teachers turned to People’s Commissar of Education Lunacharsky with complaints about Ukrainization but received a flat answer: “Whoever does not want to learn, let them leave Ukraine: we, in Great Russia, will provide them all with a place to reside in and a job”19.

The population of Kuban resisted forced Ukranization. In 1928 the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU) came to the conclusion that Ukrainization in schools “did not meet with mass approval among the local people”, Russian schools were packed to capacity, while Ukrainian schools reported shortages of students20. In addition, OGPU pointed out that “supporters of Ukrainization mostly comprised an insignificant share of teaching staff, mainly young graduates of the Kuban and Kyiv Pedagogical Colleges”. In the meantime, “the anti-Soviet sections of the Cossack village occasionally use Ukrainization to incite an independent movement in Kuban, attending to this end the Ukrainian literary clubs and other public gatherings held by village libraries”.

A gradual decrease in korenization or nativization was reported in 1933. Nationalization of Ukraine triggered sentiments that were at odds with the position of the central leadership. Unlike earlier, when the central government aimed to build a national republic as a counterbalance to “the Russian great-power chauvinism” and wanted to create a union of equal nationalities and acquire loyalty and popularity among the population, now the situation changed and Ukrainian regions were exposed to a growing threat of separatism and nationalism, which demonstrated a hostile attitude to other nationalities.

In his speech at the 17th Party Congress in January 1934 I.V.Stalin said that “the tilt towards Ukrainian nationalism did not pose any danger at first, but after it was allowed to develop freely with no measures taken against it, this tilt merged with interventionists and came to present a major threat”21.

The policy of Ukrainization, even though it did not last long, did produce results. The concept “Little Russian” wound up its transformation into the concept “Ukrainian”. In the 1930s “The Monolingual Dictionary of the Russian Language” by D.N.Ushakov published an article with the following addition: “Malorussian”(“Little Russian”), (pre-rev.) Chauvinistic name for Ukrainian”22. At the turn of the century the population of Ukrainian regions mostly consisted of peasants, had no political identity, and by language they spoke this population was defined as Little Russians. The urban population consisted of representatives of different nationalities, and Ukrainians were not always in the majority. If city councils were formed in a natural way, Russian representatives would be in the majority, at least in Odessa and Kharkiv.23.

The process was affected by historical circumstances. Peasants, in most cases,  were illiterate, and the policy of the USSR in the 1920-1930s focused on eradicating illiteracy. Serving the same purposes was the policy of urbanization, when village dwellers moved to cities and started to work at industrial enterprises. Little Russian peasants thus found themselves in an environment which inevitably cultivated in them the Ukrainian identity thanks to education and the new cultural policy. Simultaneously, there sprang up the Ukrainian elite – writers, literary people, journalists, politicians. It was Soviet Ukrainization that marked the first stage in the formation of mass Ukrainian identity, which contrasted with the Russian identity and was disseminated on the territory of one particular republic within the USSR.  


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